The next stop on Valen Erickson’s unconventional football journey will be Lincoln, Nebraska.
Erickson, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive tackle heading into his senior season at St. Rita, committed to Nebraska on July 30.
He’s one of two Big Ten recruits for this year’s Mustangs along with Ohio State-bound wide receiver Kaleb Brown.
It’s heady territory for an athlete who didn’t even start playing football until seventh grade and then had to navigate the challenges of being recruited in the COVID-19 era.
“It was definitely stressful,” Erickson said. “Like coach [Todd] Kuska said, ‘You’ve got to stay positive.’”
Erickson has been doing that for a while. He was born and raised in Chicago before moving to Ocala, Florida, for several years.
“That’s where the love of football started,” said Erickson, who started out as a basketball player.
While in Ocala, he became a fan of Central Florida, which rose to prominence under Scott Frost, who’s now the Nebraska coach.
Erickson moved back to the Chicago area before his sophomore year and realized his future was in football.
“Rita is pretty stacked with basketball players,” he said. “I didn’t think I had a shot there.”
The same is true of the football team, though. But Erickson was good enough to make his presence felt for the Mustangs’ Class 5A runner-up in 2019. He got his first offer right after that season, from Purdue.
Then came COVID-19.
College coaches were still interested, but they wanted to see some updated film, which was finally available during the pandemic-delayed spring season.
Erickson wasn’t the same player — he was a lot better, which only makes sense.
“My last sophomore game, I was 15,” he said. “My first junior game, I was 17.”
More offers came in: Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville among them. Kuska wasn’t surprised.
“Once we got him accustomed to our way of doing things, I knew he would take off,” Kuska said. “[He’s] very athletic, he’s got great feet, great length.”
With his pick of Power Five offers, Erickson’s earlier appreciation of Frost tipped the scales.
“Nebraska ... just felt right,” Erickson said. “They definitely recruited me the hardest.”
Illini make headway
As the focus shifts from recruiting to the start of preseason practice on Monday, a look at commitments in the senior class shows Bret Bielema is living up to his promise.
The first-year Illinois coach said he would prioritize in-state recruits, and that’s just what he’s done.
Of the top 30 players in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings for the class of 2022, eight are committed to the Illini: Fenwick receiver Eian Pugh, Oswego East linebacker Jared Badie, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley athlete Aiden Laughery, Joliet Catholic running back Jordan Anderson, Brother Rice tight end Henry Boyer, Rochester receiver Hank Beatty, Joliet Catholic safety Malachi Hood and Iroquois West offensive lineman Clayton Leonard.
The only other school with more than one commitment from the state’s top 30 is Northwestern. The Wildcats actually have three of the state’s top 10 players: Naperville Central receiver Reggie Fleurima, Marist offensive tackle Deuce McGuire and Maine South receiver Chris Petrucci.